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Paul and the Sanctity of Human Life -- a study of Acts 16

You, and every person you know, is infinitely valued by God.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 16

We backtrack to the episode that got Paul thrown in jail—casting out a demon from a slave girl. Paul clearly valued the girl more than her owners did, and they were angered by the loss of future income. Christians must always realize that our actions and opinions involve people created in the image of God.


What Is the Sanctity of Human Life?

Here is an excellent statement from Focus on the Family:


Contrary to cultural messages, our value isn't determined by our ethnicity, race or gender; nor by our age, ability or location. It's our divine membership in the human family that sets each of us apart as sacred. Men, women and children (including preborn children in the womb) should be respected, regardless of their mental capacity, physical ability, or social position. Some people may not exhibit attributes of God or behave in ways that recognize their own value yet their intrinsic worth remains. The concept of human dignity comes from the sanctity of human life. Since humans are made in God's image, we hold a distinctive status that sets us apart. Human dignity is bestowed upon us by God. It's not based on our ability to care for ourselves or competence to complete the task. Dignity is not a concept that can be forfeited, so being dependent on others cannot cause us to lose our dignity. Our failure to recognize and honor human dignity is apparent in phrases like "quality of life." Dependency is viewed as the ultimate weakness and as a result, some people would rather die than continue living if it means living with a disability. This attitude increases pressure for the acceptance of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia instead of providing a compassionate response to those who are disabled or face a terminal illness. A common fear among the disabled or terminally ill is that of becoming a burden. We help restore human dignity through our witness of caring for each other, especially in our times of dependence and need. The sanctity ethic reminds us that God is ultimately sovereign over the affairs of our lives, including our frailty and infirmity.


This Week's Big Idea: The Sanctity of Human Life

The emphasis for the week is “Sanctity of Human Life”, a Sunday declared by Ronald Reagan on an anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The lesson focuses on Paul’s encounter with the slave girl in Philippi (the one that got him thrown in prison).


Here are some tasteful videos available online that you might use for inspiration:


  • “The Dignity of Human Life” 3:56; this is a montage of people talking about the value of all humanity, regardless of age, race, or health


  • “Pro-life | right to Life Video | the Miracle of Life” 3:40; this is all about the development of unborn babies in the womb; very powerful


  • “Skit Guys Life Is Sacred” 2:17; this is a montage of pictures about all people, all ages, all races—shorter, very tasteful


And here are a few statistics that you might be able to use (not that I think anyone in your class will deny that the world no longer thinks of human life as sacred)

  • Doctor-assisted suicide (often defended as “death with dignity”) is in various forms of legislation in many states. It is legal in Oregon, Montana, Washington, Vermont, California, and Colorado. “Euthanasia” in which the doctor administers the fatality, is technically different.

  • Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the country, ~37,000/year. As many as 25% of all adults have bouts with depression, but less than half receive treatment for depression. Only 1/25 of all suicide attempts are successful, meaning there could be 1 million suicide attempts every year in the USA.

  • It is impossible to know how many people are killed each year from religious persecution (of all kinds)—could be in the millions.

  • 800 million people in the world are hungry every day.

  • One million children die as the result of preterm birth around the globe every year. Many of these deaths, especially in vulnerable communities, can be prevented through maternal and child health and nutrition programs.

  • The U.S. and Canada have the highest rates of infant mortality among nations in the industrialized world.

  • Infant mortality among children born to African American women with college degrees is three times higher than among those born to white women with college degrees in the United States. Sociologists point to the stress of racism as a primary cause of these deaths.

  • One million children are aborted in the United States and Canada every year.

Yes, these statistics are depressing, but we should never allow ourselves to be insulated in our bubble enough to forget the great need of so many in our world.


Bonus Big Idea: The Baptist Faith and Message

Article 15 of our Baptist Faith and Message (The Christian and the Social Order):

Every Christian is under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in his own life and in human society. Means and methods used for the improvement of society and the establishment of righteousness among men can be truly and permanently helpful only when they are rooted in the regeneration of the individual by the saving grace of God in Christ Jesus. The Christian should oppose in the spirit of Christ every form of [racism,] greed, selfishness, and vice [and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography]. He should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, [the abused,] the aged, the helpless, and the sick. [We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.] Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love. In order to promote these ends Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and his truth.

This is the 1963 version with the additions made in 2000 included in brackets.


In our passage from Acts, we have an extreme example about “all” human life. Paul is confronted with a (1) young, (2) female, (3) slave, (4) from another culture, (5) who was causing him big problems. Do you think Paul was at all attempted not to think of that girl as “human”? I don't.


If you’re curious, here are the passages cited in defense of our article of faith on human life: Exodus 20:3-17; Leviticus 6:2-5; Deuteronomy 10:12; 27:17; Psalm 101:5; Micah 6:8; Zechariah 8:16; Matthew 5:13-16,43-48; 22:36-40; 25:35; Mark 1:29-34; 2:3ff.; 10:21; Luke 4:18-21; 10:27-37; 20:25; John 15:12; 17:15; Romans 12-14; 1 Corinthians 5:9-10; 6:1-7; 7:20-24; 10:23-11:1; Galatians 3:26-28; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:12-17; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; Philemon; James 1:27; 2:8.


Interestingly, Psalm 139 is not found in this list! Those passages are about justice and right treatment. Here are other passages you can consider:

  • Jeremiah 1:5: God forms life in the womb and knows that life. (Job 31:15)

  • Psalm 22: seems to trace the psalmist’s identity into the womb.

  • Luke 1: all of the statements about John while still in Elizabeth’s womb.

  • Exodus 21:22-25: This is the uncomfortable passage about a man who strikes a pregnant woman. If it causes healthy premature birth, then the man is just fined. But if there are any birth defects or a miscarriage, then the punishment is “eye for an eye”. As far as I can understand, this is as clear a statement as there is that the Jews considered an unborn child to be fully human.

As for the rest of human life, you can look to all of the passages in which God tells His people to treat the widow, orphan, and alien with respect and care. That indicates that the ancient world did not think much of those people.


Starting the Lesson

“This is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. We’re going to see an extreme example of this principle in Acts 16. In what situations today are we tempted to see people as not-human? Perhaps as statistics, or as enemies?"


Then, list these hot-button issues currently in the news:

  • Illegal immigrants and their families (and those tasked with finding them)

  • Perpetrators of sexual abuse (and their victims)

  • Scientists and military leaders in North Korea (and their families)

Does our perspective on those issues change when we think about all of the people involved as human beings? How so? How do we balance justice, safety, security, and the sanctity of all human life? (Don’t let class members sermonize here!)

 

Part 1: Freedom Gained (Acts 16:16-18)

Once, as we were on our way to prayer, a slave girl met us who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She made a large profit for her owners by fortune-telling. As she followed Paul and us she cried out, “These men, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation, are the servants of the Most High God.” She did this for many days. Paul was greatly annoyed. Turning to the spirit, he said, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out right away.

This is a fascinating episode. We know how it turns out—Paul and Silas end up in jail. Here are two things that might come up when you read these verses.


(1) Can spirits really see the future? It’s possible. We don’t know if God created angels/demons to be bound to time like us, or above time like Him. Based on what the spirit was saying, I would say that it could not see the future. Ask: do you know how fortune-tellers work? Essentially, they spot identity clues on the people who hire them, and then they say things that are so generic that it would be near-impossible to prove false. They aren’t actually seeing the future. For example, read what the spirit said about Paul and Silas. It sounds really good, but it is so vague as to mean just about anything. The word for “salvation” to Greek people at that time usually meant “from death”. (Note: when the Philippian jailer asked “what must I do to be saved?” he was probably referring to the evil spirit’s declaration!) Plus, the term “Most High God” was used for Zeus. All that to say—this spirit was good at saying things which sounded true but could mean anything, so it probably didn’t actually see the future.


(2) Why didn’t Paul cast out the demon immediately? This is a great question. If Paul really cared about this girl, why did he wait for days before rescuing her from the evil spirit? Well, he might not have realized it to be a case of possession, and not just an annoying girl. It’s unlikely that he was afraid of the girl’s owners. It’s also unlikely that he didn’t know what to do about demon possession. I think this was about perception. Paul didn’t want people to think that the One True God was afraid of a little demon, and so he just ignored this demon. But eventually, it tore him up inside that this girl was being used as a pawn (the word for “annoyed” means “thoroughly distressed”) by a demon and by wicked men.


Whatever the reason, the point to make is that Paul was never angry at the girl. He saw through her condition to the real problem and he had compassion on her. And he made sure that everyone knew that it was in the name of Jesus Christ that Paul had any authority over this demon. (By the way, this is probably the biggest reason why we believe that Christians cannot be possessed by demons. The Holy Spirit, who indwells all Christians, cannot be pushed around by any demon, no matter how great or fearsome.)


Ask your class: we may never cast a demon out of someone, but we can (and have) help people gain their freedom. How? This is why the “slave to sin” image is so powerful. This poor girl was a slave both to human masters and the demon who possessed her. How awful! The Bible speaks of our sins and temptations using the same terms as this kind of slavery. Have you been rescued from an awful sin? Have you helped someone else overcome an awful sin? What is that experience like? The most common ones seem to be addictions to drugs, alcohol, or pornography, but how about fear, loneliness, or grief?

 

Part 2: The Complaint (Acts 16:19)

When her owners realized that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities.

We know how this turns out. The point to make is that the men cared only about their money, not about the condition of the people around them. Christians cannot ever worry more about money than people (or anything more than people). How does that play out in our lives today? This is where I recommend using the section about the Baptist Faith and Message. When we insist on seeing people as more important than money, power, convenience, entertainment, etc., how does that change the way we look at the news? (As always, I encourage you to keep discussions from getting political.) And I don’t know every application of this idea. But I do know that the Bible wants us to look at every side of every debate as concerning people, people made in the image of God whether we like them or not.

 

Part 3: Valued by God (Psalm 139:13-16)

For it was you who created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise you because I have been remarkably and wondrously made. Your works are wondrous, and I know this very well. 15 My bones were not hidden from you when I was made in secret, when I was formed in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in your book and planned before a single one of them began.

No, this passage is not connected with the Acts passage, but Lifeway's gonna Lifeway.


The ancient world did not understand conception or pregnancy (because of course they didn’t -- see below). But other ancient cultures did not legally treat babies as people, whereas ancient Jews did. That sentiment is mostly captured in David’s Psalm 139, a beautiful, beautiful poem about the wonder and mystery of life. The psalm is about how God is sovereign over David’s entire life. This short “stanza” of the psalm points back to the beginning, how David knows that God was sovereign over his life before he was even born. This isn’t intended to have any scientific accuracy—just poetic wonder.


You’ve probably studied this before. “Inward parts” literally means “kidneys”, which the ancient world thought of as the most important vital organ. “Knit” also means “to cover” or “to overshadow” and is the same word used in Job 10:11—it sees the human body as a fabric of parts, skin and bones and muscles, that God weaves together. As an idea that is just as profound today, regardless of the role of the mother and father, ultimately it is God who gives life. “Remarkably” also means “fearfully” in the sense of wonder and awe, clarified by “wondrously” which also means “extraordinary”. Both of the phrases “in secret” and “in the depths of the earth” are intended to emphasize the privacy of conception, something that no human can observe (without medical technology). Both of those phrases are figurative. “Planned” is the same word used for God “forming” Adam from dust and “fashioning” Israel into a covenant nation. The point is that God’s work in David’s life is creative and complete—with a goal and process in mind.


Ask: does it give you comfort to know that God has formed all of your days before you were even born? Do you trust God with your future? (and the big one:) How can we still have free will if God has planned all of our days? (That last question, though it sounds hard, is easy: it’s a mystery! I know that God is in command of the entire universe, and yet He still gives me the dignity of "choosing my own fate". I don’t know how that works.) In closing, pray for human lives and how you can get involved in local efforts that promote the dignity and value of every person in our community.

 

Aside: What Did the Ancient World Think about the Unborn?

It shouldn’t surprise you that the ancient world didn’t know a whole lot about the process of conception. The prevailing idea was that the man provided the seed and the woman provided the womb—absolutely no concept of any of the microscopic realities. (Incidentally, us enlightened moderns didn’t see our first pictures of unborn children until 1965! Most of our knowledge has come in the last few decades when technology finally enabled us to see what was going on.)


As you might expect, if a woman failed to conceive, it was always considered her fault, never the man’s. Tests for if a woman should be able to conceive were mostly visual (where we get the notion of “childbearing hips”). But the Egyptians and Greeks would give a female a pungent “suppository”. If her breath was bad the next day, then she could bear children. Why, you ask? Because they believed that babies formed in the stomach! If the mouth, stomach, and birth canal were “not connected” (by the smell test), then she couldn’t have a baby! And then to test if a woman was pregnant, they dipped wheat seeds in her urine. If those seeds sprouted, then she was pregnant. (That actually turns out to be pretty decent logic.)


The Greek Hippocratic texts are shockingly poor with respect to women and childbirth, based it seems more on stereotype than actual observation. It is important to note that Greek fathers had the right to let any newborn child die by “exposure” if he didn’t want the child (for any reason), but could not do that once the child reached a certain age. In other words, Greeks did not consider babies “people”.

 

Closing Thoughts: The Tragedy of the Modern World

The vehemence with which people today cry for the right to kill babies is shocking. And this is after everything we have learned about life in the womb!


But let me wrap this up with one of the greatest tragedies of all time. In LIFE magazine in 1965, "Drama of Life before Birth", Americans saw for the very first time pictures of unborn children—truly stunning photos from Lennart Nilsson that are still used today. Here’s the great tragedy: those pictures were taken of aborted babies which Nilsson posed to look as if floating in the womb. He had an arrangement with a hospital in Stockholm.


Here's a disgusting way Arizona State described this process: "Careful positioning of embryos and fetuses, state of the art lighting, and photographic technique enabled Nilsson to capture life-like images despite the fact that most of the embryos and fetuses photographed had been surgically removed from their mothers’ uteruses for medical reasons."


Nilsson has never made his stance on abortion known, but his photos have become integral to the pro-life movement.

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